Historical-romance debut by Wallach (Desert Queen: The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell, 1996, etc.): based on a true case, of the Sultan’s harem in early 19th-century Constantinople.
In 1788, Aimée de Buc de Rivery, 13-year-old Creole daughter of a prominent family in Martinique, was returning from convent school in France when her ship was captured by pirates. She was sold to a slave trader in Tunis who, in turn, sold her to the household of the Ottoman Sultan in Constantinople, where she was initiated into his seraglio. The seraglio was a place of astonishing, disorienting weirdness: The several hundred women there led lives of unfathomable luxury and ease in what was essentially a prison. Forbidden to venture beyond the palace walls, watched day and night by court eunuchs, and denied even the rudiments of education, the women filled their days by bathing, receiving instruction (from the eunuchs) in every imaginable sexual technique, and gossiping. The sultan could not possibly sleep with all of his thousands of wives, so there was a great deal of competition among those who wished to receive his attention. Aimée, understandably slow in picking up the rules of the game, eventually scored a coup when she was summoned to spend the night with the sultan—only to have him die later in the evening. Ordinarily this would have resulted in her banishment, but the new sultan was enraptured by her skill on the violin and made her one of his favorites. Eventually, she bore him a son who succeeded his father in the sultanate and proceeded to institute a number of pro-Western reforms (such as the banning of turbans). Aimée survived it all—the intrigues of the court, the army coups, the bitchiness in the harem—and was allowed the privilege of receiving last rites from a Jesuit on her deathbed.
An intriguing tale about a foreign world, written with a minimum of sentimentality and blessedly little heavy breathing.